mindfulness in daily life

The trance of the “Unreal Other”

Two shadowy human figures on a road, looking like ghosts.

The truth is: without a genuine willingness to let in the suffering of others, our spiritual practice remains empty.

Father Theophane, a Christian mystic, writes about an incident that happened when he took some time off from his secular duties for spiritual renewal at a remote monastery. Having heard of a monk there who was widely respected for his wisdom, he sought him out. Theophane had been forewarned that this wise man gave advice only in the form of questions. Eager to receive his own special contemplation, Theophane approached the monk: “I am a parish priest and am here on retreat. Could you give me a question to meditate on?”

“Ah, yes.” The wise man answered. “My question for you is: What do they need?” A little disappointed, Theophane thanked him and went away. After a few hours of meditating on the question and feeling as if he were getting nowhere, he decided to go back to the teacher.

“Excuse me,” he began, “Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear. Your question has been helpful, but I wasn’t so much interested in thinking about my apostolate during this retreat. Rather I wanted to think seriously about my own spiritual life. Could you give me a question for my own spiritual life?”

“Ah, I see,” answered the wise man. Then my question is, “What do they really need?”

Like so many of us, Father Theophane had assumed that true spiritual reflection focuses on our solitary self. But as the wise man reminded him, spiritual awakening is inextricably involved with others. As Theophane focused on the needs of those he had been given to serve, he would recognize their vulnerability and longing for love—and realize that their needs were no different than his own.

The question the wise man suggested was wonderfully crafted for awakening in Theophane the true spiritual depth that comes from paying close attention to other human beings.

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Like Theophane, whenever we are caught in our own self-centered drama, everyone else becomes “other” to us, different and unreal. The world becomes a backdrop to our own special experience and everyone in it serves as supporting cast, some as adversaries, some as allies, most as simply irrelevant. Because involvement with our personal desires and concerns prevents us from paying close attention to anyone else, those around us—even family and friends—can become unreal, two-dimensional cardboard figures, not humans with wants and fears and throbbing hearts.

The more different someone seems from us, the more unreal they may feel to us. We can too easily ignore or dismiss people when they are of a different race or religion, when they come from a different socio-economic “class.” Assessing them as either superior or inferior, better or worse, important or unimportant, we distance ourselves.

Fixating on appearances—their looks, behavior, ways of speaking—we peg them as certain types. They are HIV positive or an alcoholic, a leftist or fundamentalist, a criminal or power-monger, a feminist or do-gooder. Sometimes our type-casting has more to do with temperament—the person is boring or narcissistic, needy or pushy, anxious or depressed. Whether extreme or subtle, typing others makes the real human invisible to our eyes and closes our heart.

Once someone is an unreal other, we lose sight of how they hurt. Because we don’t experience them as feeling beings, we not only ignore them, we can inflict pain on them without compunction. Not seeing that others are real leads to a father disowning his son for being gay, divorced parents using their children as weapons. All the enormous suffering of violence and war comes from our basic failure to see that others are real.

In teaching the compassion practices, I sometimes ask students to bring to mind someone they see regularly but are not personally involved with. Then I invite them to consider, “What does he or she need?” “What does this person fear?” “What is life like for this person?”

After one of these meditations, a student approached me to report that a wonderful thing had happened since she’d begun doing this practice. When seeing colleagues at work, neighbors walking their dogs, clerks at stores, she’d been saying in her mind, “You are real. You are real.”

Rather than being backdrops for her life, she was finding them come alive to her. She’d notice a gleam of curiosity in the eyes, a generous smile, an anxious grinding of teeth, a disappointed and resigned slope to the shoulders, the sorrow in a downcast look. If she stayed a moment longer, she could also feel their shyness, their awkwardness, or their fear. She told me, “The more real they are to me, the more real and warm and alive I feel. I feel a closeness in just being humans together. It doesn’t matter who they are … I feel like I can accept them as part of my world.”

When we stop to attend and see others as real, we uncover the hidden bond that exists between all beings. In her poem “Kindness,” Naomi Shihab Nye writes:

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

We are all journeying through the night with plans, breathing in and out this mysterious life. And, as my student discovered through her practice, the more we can learn to pay attention to others, and truly see them as “real,” just like us, the more we can allow the “tender gravity of kindness” to naturally awaken and bloom.

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Don’t beat yourself up, you’ll live longer

wildmind meditation newsLeah Burrows, BrandeisNow: Brandeis researchers explore the relationship between self-compassion and health.

We all have stress in our lives, whether it’s a daily commute, workplace pressures or relationship troubles. But how we deal with that stress could impact our health and longevity.

In a recently published paper in Brain, Behavior and Immunity, Brandeis University researchers report they found a connection between a self-compassionate attitude and lower levels of stress-induced inflammation. The discovery could lead to new techniques to lower stress and improve health.

The paper was authored by psychology professor Nicolas Rohleder, with postdoctoral fellows Juliana Breines and Myriam Thoma, and graduate students Danielle Gianferante, Luke Hanlin and Xuejie Chen.

It’s long known that psychological stress can trigger biological responses similar to the effects of illness or injury, including inflammation. While regulated inflammation can help stave off infection or promote healing, unregulated inflammation can lead to cardiovascular disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s.

Self-compassion describes behaviors such as self-forgiveness or, more colloquially, cutting yourself some slack. A person with high levels of self-compassion may not blame themselves for stress beyond their control or may be more willing to move on from an argument, rather than dwelling on it for days.

To understand the connection between self-compassion and inflammatory responses to stress, Rohleder and his team asked 41 participants to rank their levels of self-compassion. The participants ranked their agreement to statements such as, “I try to be understanding and patient toward aspects of my personality I do not like” and “I’m disapproving and judgmental about my own flaws and inadequacies.”

Then, the participants took one stress test a day for two days and their levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6), an inflammatory agent linked to stress, were recorded before and after each test. After the first stress test, participants with higher self-compassion had significantly lower levels of IL-6.

On the second day, Rohleder and his team found something unexpected. Those with low self-compassion had higher base levels of IL-6 before the test, suggesting that they may have been carrying the stress they experienced the day before.

“The high responses of IL-6 on the first day and the higher baseline levels on the second day suggest that people with low self-compassion are especially vulnerable to the adverse effects of this kind of stress,” Rohleder says.

The research illustrates how easy it is for stress to build over time and how a seemingly small daily stressor, such as traffic, can impact a person’s health if they don’t have the right strategies to deal with it.

“Hopefully, this research can provide more effective ways to cope with stress and reduce disease, not only by relieving negative emotions but by fostering positive ideas of self compassion,” Rohleder says.

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21 ways to turn ill will to good will

wooden wall painted with slogans of kindness, such as "love and kindness are never wasted"

Here we give up angry, punishing reactions toward others, animals, plants, and things. If such attitudes arise, we resolve not to feed them, and to cut them off as fast as we can.

The Buddha placed great stress on the importance of releasing ill will. In the extreme, he said that even when we are being grossly mistreated by others, we should practice good will toward them, and wish them the best.

To be sure, that does not mean turning a blind eye toward injustice and mistreatment – of ourselves as well as others – nor does it mean turning our back on skillful actions of protection, advocacy, and betterment. It is perfectly appropriate to defend yourself, assert yourself, pursue your own interests – and to do all that on behalf of others, too – as long as all that is done in the spirit of wisdom and good will. This stance is seen pointedly and poignantly in the Dalai Lama’s reference to “ . . . my friends, the enemy Chinese.”

Of course, in daily life, practicing with ill will is often extremely difficult – especially when we feel we’ve been truly wronged. For help, please see, “21 Ways to Turn Ill Will to Good Will.” As a summary, those ways are listed here:

  1. Be mindful of the priming.
  2. Practice non-contention.
  3. Inspect the underlying trigger.
  4. Be careful about attributing intent to others.
  5. Put what happened in perspective.
  6. Cultivate lovingkindness, compassion sympathetic joy, and equanimity.
  7. Practice generosity.
  8. Investigate ill will.
  9. Regard ill will as an affliction.
  10. Settle into awareness of ill will, but don’t be identified with it.
  11. Accept the wound.
  12. Do not cling to what you want.
  13. Let go of the view that things are supposed to be a certain way.
  14. Release the sense of self.
  15. “ . . . ill will is suppressed by the first jhana based on lovingkindness and eradicated by the path of nonreturning.”
  16. Resolve to meet mistreatment with lovingkindness.
  17. Cultivate positive emotion.
  18. Communicate.
  19. Have faith that they will inherit their own karmas one day.
  20. Realize that some people will not get the lesson.
  21. Forgive.
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What is “Mindful Presence”?

What Is Mindful Presence?

Let’s unpack those two words, mindful presence.

Mindfulness is simply a clear, non-judgmental awareness of your inner and outer worlds. In particular, it’s an awareness of the flow of experience in your inner world – an alert observing of your thoughts, emotions, body sensations, desires, memories, images, personality dynamics, attitudes, etc.

When you are mindful of something, you are observing it, not caught up in it and not identified with it. The psychological term, “the observing ego” – considered to be essential for healthy functioning – refers to this capacity (i.e., mindfulness) to detach from the stream of consciousness and observe it. Other terms for this capacity include bare witnessing and the Fair Witness.

Mindful Presence Series

  1. What is “Mindful presence”?
  2. Why develop mindful presence?
  3. Mindful presence: A mindfulness tune-up.
  4. Mindful presence: Open space mindfulness.

Mindfulness is an everyday psychological capacity, not some kind of lofty mystical state. To quote an unidentified meditation master: “Even children, drunkards, madmen, those who are old, or those who are illiterate, can develop mindfulness.”

Presence refers to the stability of mindfulness, which means the degree to which you are grounded in awareness itself.

With practice, awareness becomes increasingly your home base, your refuge, rather than the contents of awareness. You abide more and more as the field of awareness upon which experiences arise, register, and pass away.

The sense of awareness itself starts taking up more and more space in your daily experience; you certainly still get caught up in and swept along by mental contents many times a day, but you find there is more of a feeling of background awareness even then, plus you return to the awareness position more quickly, and stay there longer.

As mindful presence increases, there is a growing sense of being as the container of your everyday life, which holds the doing and the having of daily activities. You are being being. Doing and having no longer contain little moments of being; instead, being is increasingly the ongoing space through which ripples of doing and having come and go.

This quality of abiding as awareness moves out into your life beyond time spent meditating. Simply stretching your hand for a cup of coffee or tea becomes increasingly infused with a sense of full awareness of that act. So with other physical activities.

With people, you become more settled into being fully there with them, more peacefully relaxed in awareness of them and you and what’s happening, less identified with pleasant or unpleasant reactions that arise, less caught up in the past or future or sense of needing to make something happen. We can feel it immediately when someone else is mindfully present with us; similarly, others can feel it when you are that way yourself.

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4 ways mindfulness meditation benefits so many conditions

wildmind meditation newsPsyBlog, Dr Jeremy Dean: Four central components of how mindfulness meditation works, psychological research finds.

With studies pouring in on the benefits of mindfulness, psychologists’ attention is turning to why mindfulness works, and the results are fascinating.

For example, mindfulness meditation has been shown to have therapeutic benefits in depression, anxiety, substance abuse, chronic pain and eating disorders.

Its benefits extend out to physical features like lower blood pressure and lower cortisol levels.

How is it that this type of practice can have these beneficial effects on such a broad range of conditions?

A recent study by Hölzel et al. (2011) finds four central …

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Does meditation have health benefits?

wildmind meditation newsFred Cicetti, LiveScience.com: Meditation definitely reduces stress. And too much stress is bad for your health.

There is some research that indicates meditation may help with: Allergies, anxiety, asthma, binge eating, cancer, depression, fatigue, heart disease, high blood pressure, pain, sleep difficulties and substance abuse.

I started meditating in 1976, when Dr. Herbert Benson published his book, “The Relaxation Response.”

The techniques he advocated work. In the years since, I’ve found that, when I forget to meditate, I get a stress buildup. As soon as I meditate, I feel better. And the effects of the meditation carry through the day.

I studied Zen Buddhist …

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New trend: meditation studios

wildmind meditation newsThere’s a new studio opening this week in Santa Monica where clients can come in and…sit. Unplug Meditation’s only offerings are 45-minute meditation classes, each led by an instructor who guides students through sessions as they sit on padded cushions. It’s designed to be like a cycling studio, offering nearly-identical classes on the hour, every hour, so busy adults can choose one that fits their schedule and then get on with their day.

While Unplug Meditation is unique in its meditation-only focus, yoga studios and spiritual centers in cities across the country are increasingly offering meditation classes or time slots where you can …

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Telomeres for life

wildmind meditation newsKUSA, 9News.com: Which choice are you most likely to make: you have had a stressful day, the drive home was challenging to say the least, and you aren’t craving steamed broccoli – more like an entire bag of potato chips. When you finally get home do you grab a glass of grape derived “medicine” and plop down in front of the news or take a seat on your meditation cushion and center yourself? Opting for meditation over marinating in stress hormones may help you to live longer and stronger.

The “fountain of youth” can flow when you are under the influence of meditation …

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4 ways to meditate during your day

wildmind meditation newsHerald Sun: Finding time to relax and close your eyes isn’t always possible. Fear not – you can do these four meditations anywhere, no shut-eye required.

1. In the shower: Waterfall meditation
Waterfall meditation Shinto priests use the cold crashing force of waterfalls in purification rituals. This is a far more pleasant version.

How to do it:

Adjust the water to your ideal temperature. Take a few deep breaths and set your intention to use this time to meditate. Feel the water on your head and dripping down onto your shoulders, arms, torso, legs and feet. Become mindful of the scent and texture of the …

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Intention of harmlessness

Kitten on a white backgroundThis is a broad aim of not causing pain, loss, or destruction to any living thing. At a minimum, this is a sweeping resolution to avoid any whit of harm to another human being. The implications are far-reaching, since most of us participate daily in activities whose requirements or ripples may involve harm to others (e.g., use of fossil fuels that warms the planet, purchasing goods manufactured in oppressive conditions).

Further, in American culture there is a strong tradition of rugged individualism in which as long as you are not egregiously forceful or deceitful, “let the buyer beware” on the other side of daily transactions. But if your aim is preventing any harm, then the other person’s free consent does not remove your responsibility.

Taking it a step further, to many, harmlessness means not killing bothersome insects, rodents, etc. Even as you feel the mosquito sticking its needle into your neck. And to many, harmlessness means eating a vegetarian diet (and perhaps forgoing milk products, since cows need to have calves to keep their milk production flowing, and half of those calves are male, who will eventually be slaughtered for food).

Nonetheless, we need to realize that there is no way to avoid all harms to other beings that flow inexorably through our life. If we are to eat, we must kill plants, and billions of bacteria die each day as we pass wastes out of our bodies. If we get hired for a job, that means another person will not be.
But what we can do is to have a sincere aspiration toward harmlessness, and to reduce our harms to an absolute minimum. And that makes all the difference in the world.

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